Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Neglected Gem #19: In America (2003)

Contains Spoilers

The main character in In America (2003), by the Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan, is Johnny (Paddy Considine), an actor from Dublin who brings his family – his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and his daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger – The Tudors) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) – to Manhattan after his son Frankie dies of a brain tumor caused by a fall down the stairs. The screenplay, which Sheridan wrote with his own daughters Naomi and Kirsten, is a sort of autobiographical collage. Sheridan and his wife Fran emigrated to New York, put in their time in a tough neighborhood like Hell’s Kitchen – where Johnny and Sarah bring their girls in In America – and Fran gave birth prematurely, just as Sarah does late in the film. But the lost child in real like, Frankie Sheridan, was Jim Sheridan’s kid brother and not his son, and the Sheridan character in the movie is really Christy, the older daughter, who tells the story in voice-over and who walks around with a Camcorder, preserving her family and her impressions of her new environment on videotape. No doubt the fact that so many of the incidents in the film are inspired by Sheridan’s own experiences enhances its authenticity, but his movies are almost unfailingly genuine, and he doesn’t seem capable of a banal impulse. In America is as wondrously unconventional for a coming-to-America movie as My Left Foot was for a triumph-of-the-spirit drama or In the Name of the Father for a prison picture. Not a single sequence in it looks like anything else you’ve ever seen.

Here’s an example. Fed up with the heat of their first New York summer, Johnny purchases a second-hand air conditioner and hauls it up the staircase in their sweltering walk-up; as he teeters past one of his neighbors, who’s fanning herself languidly, she reaches out toward him and fans a little cool air onto his face. This modicum of neighborly compassion represents all she can do for him; the gesture is both touching and comic. But when he levels the outsize machine onto his windowsill, he discovers that he needs a converter to plug it in. He tries to buy one at a local store, but he’s a few pennies short (he hasn’t been able to land a part; they’re living on Sarah’s salary from waitressing at an ice cream shop called Heaven), and the clerk won’t trust him for the change, because junkies are a bad investment and Johnny lives in a building riddled with junkies, so it’s likely he’s one himself. Sarah rounds up enough empty soda bottles to make up the difference, and Johnny gets his converter. But the air conditioner is an impractical monster. When they turn it on, it eats up so much of the current that the whole building shorts out and it plunges into darkness. The family winds up at the movies, where the air conditioning works.

Director Jim Sheridan
This sequence, with its witty structure and punch line, is conceived to underscore both Johnny’s resourcefulness and the unpredictability of the family’s new milieu, which confounds and bemuses them. And it doesn’t unfold in any way you might expect, in either the dramatic details or the visual ones. Sheridan is that rare filmmaker who never shows signs of having been influenced by other movies. Perhaps that’s partly because he was trained as a stage director, just as Arthur Penn was, and his early movies were complete originals too. But here the script provides an official reason for the freshness of its vision. Because Christy, who’s about twelve, is telling the story, the movie needs to portray the way she sees this crazy, sometimes grim but usually bedazzling new world. Not every scene is one she could have witnessed, but the style of the movie (magic realism) is determined by her bright child’s perspective, just as the style of The Black Stallion suggests how a child might perceive the adventures of a shipwrecked boy who forms a magical bond with a magnificent Arabian horse. Sheridan establishes this idea when the family crosses by tunnel to get to Manhattan and Christy’s voice-over tells us that they’re losing contact with everything they’ve ever known, and as we hear The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” on the soundtrack the images are glittering, magical. I can’t remember another case where an environment like Hell’s Kitchen has been filtered through the imagination of a gifted child, but it lightens the movie and provides a continuous tonal counterpoint to even its bleakest incidents. The apartment building is bombed out, but as Christy sees it, it’s cavernous and full of possibilities. When restricted on their first Halloween to its confines because the neighborhood is so dangerous, the girls gain entrance – after several rounds of knocking – to the apartment of the secretive African painter, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou). The way Sheridan and the cinematographer Declan Quinn shoot the scene suggests that they’ve crossed the boundary into Wonderland. Quinn’s warm, intimate lighting personalizes every venue the family burrows into, from the park where Johnny and Mateo – whom the whole family befriends – hang out on the snowy swings, to the arcade where Johnny, with Sarah’s hard-won but complete support, stakes the rent money on a game of toss with an E.T. doll for Ariel as the prize. It’s typical of the movie’s rejection of any kind of orthodoxy that the tone of this scene derives not from the folly of Johnny’s putting down so much cash or his recklessness, but from his eleventh-hour triumph (and his need to get there).

Sarah Bolger, Paddy Considine & Emma Bolger
The script is poetic and impressionistic, and sometimes it takes wild leaps – you can spot the cracks in the dramaturgy where the writing didn’t stretch far enough. But Sheridan and his splendid cast manage to fill them in. He juxtaposes a scene where Johnny and Sarah make love while the girls are out at the ice cream parlor, under the care of Sarah’s kindly co-worker, with one where the profoundly unsettled artist Mateo slashes his canvases, while an extraordinary, almost supernal rainstorm rages outside. But while we’re watching it the intercutting doesn’t seem to work; we don’t see what these two actions have to say to each other. What puts the sequence across is a combination of its visual power and the intensity of the three actors. The only time when Sheridan doesn’t succeed in finessing a moment the script has laid bare is a big confrontation scene between Johnny and Mateo, after Sarah, who has become pregnant and has been warned by a doctor that it’s a dangerous pregnancy, tells Johnny she’s decided nonetheless to bring the child to term. She feels it’s best for their daughters – whose lives have been clouded by the death in the family and especially by their father’s inability, on some profound level, to recover from it – to embrace life as he did before Frankie passed away. For his part, Johnny fears for both Sarah’s safety and the safety of the unborn child. Their quarrel ends with him storming out of the apartment and into Mateo’s below, and what follows, where Johnny expresses his anger and his terror to this man who’s come serendipitously into their lives, plays like an improvisation on a semi-forced dramatic idea. It stays with you, though.

Emma Bolger & Djimon Hounsou
Later in the movie, you can see what Sheridan was setting up in the cross-cutting between the sex and the slashed paintings. The movie is a kind of fairy tale, its structure set by the storyteller, Christy, who makes herself the heroine of this story of her family’s difficult transition in Manhattan. She imagines herself maintaining a mystical connection with her dead brother, and in her fantastical version of events, which only we are privy to, Frankie gives her three wishes, and she has to use them sparingly. Her first wish is that they get across the border (they’re illegal immigrants, pretending to be on vacation), her second that Johnny win the E.T. doll for her kid sister. When Sarah gives birth prematurely and there’s some doubt about the survival of the baby, we expect her to use her third wish, but she needs to keep it in reserve. So Mateo takes the role of the magical companion who sacrifices his life for that of the child and saves the family from another round of sorrow: he dies of AIDS in the same hospital where the baby is being cared for. And just as Christy’s childish egocentricity in the arcade scene (her insistence, in voice-over, that she and not her dad was the real hero of the day) is the brilliant comic touch that rescues it from melodrama, the conception of Mateo as a figure in a fairy tale lifts the notions of the AIDS-afflicted immigrant artist above heavily symbolic bathos. So does Hounsou’s performance, which is simultaneously delicate and feral.

The intensely personal, exquisitely particularized In America affects us in ways that most filmmakers couldn’t conceive of. Every scene in it is charged with feeling, as in a great De Sica film or Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Sheridan begins and ends with the emotions of his characters – presented in all their messy complexity, not emblematically. His four main actors (including the real-life sisters, Sarah and Emma Bolger) behave so convincingly like a family that, experientially, the movie starts where many domestic dramas wind up. The two girls are remarkable, and the work of the amazingly intuitive Samantha Morton and the Irish stage actor Paddy Considine confirms Sheridan’s reputation as one of the three or four most gifted actor’s directors in movies. Sarah’s upbeat attitude conceals her own grief and guilt over Frankie’s death; she’s afraid that her husband has never forgiven her for not being there when the child tumbled downstairs, and she’s the one who keeps begging him to pretend he’s happy for the kids’ sake, but when she elects to have another baby, we see the depth of her own misery. Johnny carries his mournfulness around in his deep-set, tragic eyes. The way the script is constructed, Considine has to hoist the bulk of the film, and he does it.

Samantha Morton & Paddy Considine
But it’s Christy’s story, and the best sequences focus on her responses to their American journey. At the Halloween party at the Catholic school she and Ariel attend (Johnny has taken a night job driving a cab so they can pay the tuition), the girls wear their homemade costumes, while their classmates are dressed in glitzy store-bought outfits they can easily afford. Christy feels like a freak; the sisters win a special award for their costumes but Christy, sensitive to the pity with which it was given, throws hers away. At the school variety show, she performs the Eagles song “Desperado,” and Sheridan intercuts it with her video images of her family. Suddenly the song takes on new meaning: inexpressibly sad, it’s clearly about the way she sees her father. (The source of this musical choice is presumably the astonishing rendition by a grade-school girl on the CD The Langley Schools Project: both the recording and this scene suggest how a child can make a song with an adult lyric poignant by singing it through her own experience.)

The movie has one of those endings you feel you’ll remember all your life. Johnny brings Sarah and the baby home from the hospital, but Ariel is stricken that Mateo left them without saying goodbye. So Johnny takes the girls out onto the fire escape to look at the moon, and with his imaginative guidance they’re able to see Mateo riding across the moon like E.T. on Elliott’s bicycle. As they shout their farewells, the girls ask him to look after their dead brother, and Christy – asking silently for her third wish – urges Johnny to say goodbye to Frankie, too. And finally he can. The emotional effort frees him to cry for his dead son for the first time – to feel again. As Sarah folds herself in her father’s arms, we see images of the dead: first Mateo and then Frankie months or perhaps weeks before he died, on her Camcorder. But then she switches it off, explaining to us in voice-over that “it’s not the way I want to see Frankie anymore.” Her last line is a killer:

 Do you still have a picture of me in your head? Well, that’s like the picture I want to have of Frankie. The one that you can keep in your head forever. So when you go back to reality, I’ll ask Frankie . . . to please, please – let me go.

This speech brings the idea of In America as Christy’s movie full circle, shifting the struggle of letting go of Frankie from Johnny to Christy. We realize, finally, that her communication with her dead brother – the wishes – weren’t just magic; they’ve been a burden. Frankie has been her ghost as well as Johnny and Sarah’s, and she can’t go on with her life until he frees her.

  Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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